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Irish Independent Feature (Expanded Version) Part 2

Irish Independent Newspaper Logo
Irish Independent article 22/2/2023
Irish Independent article 22/2/2023

 

This is the second part of my expanded  Q & A interview with Niall McMonagle of the Sunday Independent.

Read part one here 

 

This section is more about how I work, my style and influences.

Q: How do you choose your places to paint? And is there a particular time of year that you favour?

A: Light and colour draw me to a subject. I am looking for a strong composition and clean colours. Usually bright light and strong shadows, so any time of year except for summer. I paint large paintings in the long hours of summer instead. Composition is key to my work. I also like to express the quiet like various American realists like Edward Hopper. I also love Rockwell Kent, a painter who also painted west Donegal.

Q: Do you work en plein air? From sketches? Photographs?

A: I tried painting en plein air in South Wales – I was crippled by feeling self-conscious and frustrated by my lack of control over the conditions. Plein air is also not conducive to my style of painting, and what I am trying to achieve in my work; in the magnification of simplicity, form, light and shadow. I am continually painting layers over a period of time. My creative process starts with taking the photo, editing and then using it for inspiration. I try to recreate the essence of a place I am painting rather than simply reproducing a scene.  I am very much influenced by the photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson and how he used composition to create dynamic images.

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) Munster, County Kerry, Ireland, 1952
Henri Cartier-Bresson, County Kerry, Ireland, 1952

 

Q: You now live in Derry and Donegal. How did that come about?

A: We wanted to have a combination or urban and rural so that we could experience both, so we live 7/8 months of the year in Derry and 4/5 months in Donegal. The Derry/Donegal combo is hard to beat. Derry also opens up another area of east Donegal, Inishowen, as it is only a few miles away from Derry city.

Q: Your work features on a Donal Ryan Spanish version of Strange Flowers [‘Cottage on Bunbeg Harbour’] and Claire Keegan’s Foster [‘The Traditional House. Gola’]. Congratulations. Has that made a difference?

Donal Ryan's "Strange Flowers" (Flores extranses).
Donal Ryan’s “Strange Flowers” (Flores extranses).

A: It has been great to get recognition from two such brilliant writers. I feel greatly honoured. I knew that when I moved from South Wales to Ireland that I was likely to lose collectors (although I still paint the Gower Peninsula in South Wales and Tenby from time to time) and it would take time to build up an Irish following.
I am hoping these book covers will help with that, plus this feature.

Cover of Claire Keegan's "Foster"
Cover of Claire Keegan’s “Foster”

 

Q: How did the dreaded Covid affect you and your work?

A: I broke my leg at the start of the pandemic and was awaiting an operation in Morriston Hospital, near Swansea as the country went into lockdown. So whilst most were confined to their houses I was confined to my bedroom for several months and had to do physiotherapy down the phone. I took months to recover and regain my mobility and make it up the steep stairs into my attic studio.

Emma Cownie Artist
Painting in the studio with my leg up!

 

Artists live very solitary lives so lockdown wasn’t a massive change to my life, as such. I was frustrated that I couldn’t  visit locations to take photos for new paintings so I spent months scouring through the photos I did have. I was surprised at how many photos I had discounted could be made into interesting pictures.

Covid has definitely affected our life here – I feel frustrated that we are living at arms’ length from everyone. It has meant that we have limited where we go and what we do. My husband  is asthmatic, so we are very careful. We got vaccinated and boosted and always wear masks indoor but we were still very ill this summer. It knocked us both out for 6 weeks. I don’t want to catch it again because we don’t know what the long term effects will be.

Q: In terms of your palette what colours are essential?

A: It depend where I am painting and whether I am using oils or acrylics. The light in South Wales is more yellowy, in Donegal it is clearer and bluey-white. Our house in Derry is smaller than our Donegal house so I had to learn to paint with acrylics because of the fumes and having pets at close quarters.

Acrylics are very different to oils as you have to build them up in thin layers. They dry fast and are difficult to blend. Oils are more opaque but much slower to dry. I have to think about each medium in a different way and use different colours. With both oil and acrylics I prefer underlying warm colours (oranges, ochres, pinks and mauves) but I have to use different colours to get a similar same effect in each. With oils I would use Naples Yellow, Yellow ochre, Olive Green, Raw and Burnt Umber, Raw Sienna, Van Dyke Brown, Warm Grey, and Cool Grey, Mauve and for the sea and sky Ultramarine and Phthalo Blues.

With acrylics I would use Lemon Yellow, Ivory, Light Ochre, Sap Green, Cerulean Blue and Ultramarine blue, pink and purple, Payne’s grey for darker tones. I use more mixing white and fluid medium in acrylic. I have had to train myself to mix large quantities of “sky” colour and keep in a tub with acrylic. There’s this thing called “colour shift” which means the paint dries lighter. So it’s almost impossible to match wet acrylics to the dry colour you want to achieve. The irony is that I think that although I prefer painting in oils, I think my acrylic paintings might actually be better.

Q: The painting reproduced in the Sunday Independent on 15 January is ‘Down to the Pier, Gola’. Would you say something please about your links with, your relationship with, Donegal in general and Gola in particular.

Down to the Pier, Gola_Emma Cownie
Down to the Pier, Gola (Donegal, Ireland)

 

A: I love the Donegal islands – they are a glimpse of a vanishing Ireland. Gola and Inishbofin are wonderful locations, in particular, although the one I most visit and have painted most is Arranmore.

I went to Gola island because of the space as I thought it would suit my “rural minimal” style of painting which proved to be the case. They have very few vehicles and I really enjoy the peace. Isn’t that why we like the coast – with just the sound of the waves and the wind? How the houses were placed, in this vastness lent itself to composition. The islands, more than any other place I have been to, chime most with my style of painting. They have moved my style forward. Also I really like the fact that there are almost no telegraph poles to complicate compositions too.

The way the vernacular houses are arranged, sheltering from upland areas of the island, and close together suggests how people of the past worked together and with the landscape. I think I am attracted to the sense of community. People had to work together in order to survive. A sense of community, interconnectedness, of Irishness, lingers there. It is tangible.

Q: Also re ‘Down to the Pier, Gola’ how quickly does your eye know and choose the perspective and the composition of the piece? And would you say something please about how you went about making this work? Did you begin with a drawing? What colour did you put down first etc.

A:  Composition is key. The cinematic-type compositions and dramatic use of light and shade. As I said before I am strongly influenced by the French photograph Henri Cartier Bresson and I often look for a road or fence posts to lead the eye into the painting.

Rule of Thirds - Henri Cartier Bresson
Rule of Thirds – Henri Cartier Bresson

 

Elements will also be left out or simplified to give the image more punch. Most of the Gola and Inishbofin paintings are painted in my own “rural minimal” style which is the rural manifestation of the “urban minimal” style I developed to paint the city with. This style of painting is influenced by those American realist painters who paint the quiet, the spacious and the still and revere a certain treatment of light and colour such as Edward Hopper as well as by Contemporary Minimalists such Jessica Brilli, (whom I traded paintings with last  year). The rules of composition are strong light and shade, use of diagonals and simplified forms. I wanted to explore the interplay of the geometry of shadows and structures – the tension between the 3D buildings and the 2D shadows. I wasn’t sure if this style would work in the countryside until I went to Gola and found it was perfect for evoking the silence and the stillness of these beautiful islands.

Painting of houses on Gola, Ireland
Tigh Breslin, Gola – Emma Cownie (SOLD)

 

“Down to the Pier, Gola” is an oil painting. I sketched the outline of the road and buildings in thin red ochre paint. I painted the white house first. It takes a several layers of paint to create that intensity of the whitewash. I usually use thin layers of paint, but my final layer of white will be thicker. White oil paint takes the longest time to dry, which is why I often start with white. I then added the blue sky and the pink road and distant buildings. I like to work quickly when I paint in oils. I will rub away the paint if I am not happy with a colour. I have learnt to be quite ruthless with rubbing back and starting from the canvas. This way the final piece is lighter and has more coherence. I am wary of over-working the paint.

I use a different approach to painting with acrylics. It is much slower as I usually paint a grayscale (or in earth tones) underpainting to check I have my tonal values right and then I add colour. There is a lot of adjusting of colours and correction that goes on. I will often work on two paintings at a time so that I can add sky, sea and use the same colours and let them dry so I can consider the colours and how they are coming together. Acrylic paintings can take up to a couple of weeks, on and off, to complete.

Q: What do you look for in a painting? And do you have a favourite painting by another artist that means a great deal to you?

A: Often I am drawn to the light – a shaft of sunlight on a window sill or a strong shadow by a house. Often times it will be a particular colour – such as the blue of clear seas of Donegal or the pale fluffy clouds.

Robert Bevan Maples at Cuckfield, Sussex 1914 National Museum of Wales, Cardiff Photo © National Museum of Wales
Robert Bevan Maples at Cuckfield, Sussex 1914,  National Museum of Wales, Cardiff
Photo © National Museum of Wales

 

Robert Bevan’s “Maples at Cuckfield, Sussex” (painted in 1914) is very special to me as it was a complete surprise when I came across it at Cardiff Museum in 2012. A good painting makes me to go home and paint. I used to feel that way about the Van Gogh’s and Monet.

I just loved the muted colours with the light orange and purples and the semi abstract trees. Bevan had spent time in Paris at Pont Aven in Brittany. He met Cezanne and Renoir was friends with Gauguin. I went back the follow year to see it again and was disappointed to find it wasn’t on display. The museum was kind enough, however, to let me and my husband go down to storage to see it close up.

Q: You have sold many many paintings. Are you sorry to see them go? Has there ever been one that you just did not want to part with?

A: I have had to toughen up a lot about parting with paintings. My sister’s advice was “paint so many you are sick of the sight of them”. It did work but some paintings really are tough to let go of. I really regret selling a painting of a horse “Blaze” and another of a elderly lady carrying her shopping in Swansea town centre, called  “Soldiering On”. I have learnt my lesson and I have a handful of paintings that I won’t ever put up for sale – one is of a Gower pony, another is of a cat that used to hang out at the local general store in Swansea.

Painting of Swansea old lady On
Soldiering On, Emma Cownie

 

Q: If you would like me to include your website, instagram, upcoming exhibition etc please give them here.

A:  I haven’t exhibited in recent years in galleries by choice and I sell the majority of my work via my website although I have a private art gallery behind my cottage in Donegal which is usually open, by appointment, May – October.

 

@emma_cownie_artist on instagram

Website – http://www.emmafcownie.com

 

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Recent work (of Derry and Donegal)

Recent work - Emma Cownie

We are about to decamp to Donegal for the summer/early autumn. I have mixed feeling about returning to oil paints. It’s been a quite a steep learning curve getting comfortable with acrylic paint but I feel like I finally got there. I am not sure what it will be like to paint in oils again; oh the the joy of easy blending! I am looking forward to being able to paint larger canvases. I will continue my practice of laying down an underpainting in grey-scale paint, regardless.

Here are some of my recent acrylic paintings, mostly of Inishowen Penisula (Donegal)

Kinnagoe Beach - Emma Cownie
Kinnagoe Beach – Emma Cownie
Down to the Rusty Nail, Inishowen_Emma Cownie
Down to the Rusty Nail, Inishowen_Emma Cownie
a painting of Fanad Head and lighthouse
Fanad (SOLD)
On the Way to Kinnagoe Bay (Drumaweer, Greencastle)
On the Way to Kinnagoe Bay (Drumaweer, Greencastle) (SOLD)
painting of Doagh Strand, donegal_Emma Cownie
Down to Doagh Strand, Donegal

Painting of Lambing season at Fanad Head (Donegal)

Lambing season at Fanad Head (Donegal)

Carrickabraghy Castle, Inishowen
Carrickabraghy Castle, Inishowen
Acrylic painting of Portmór Beach, Malin Head, Donegal
Portmór Beach, Malin Head, Donegal

 

Also of Derry city – what a great little city.

The Walls of Derry painting by Emma Cownie
The Walls of Derry

 

The Sperrinspainting Upper Dreen_Emma Cownie

Upper Dreen_Emma Cownie

And finally a few also of my favourite, Gola Island.

painting of house On Gola (Donegal)
Still, On Gola (Donegal)
The Turn in the Road, Gola - Emma Cownie
The Turn in the Road, Gola – Emma Cownie
A Sandy Road Through Gola-Emma Cownie
A Sandy Road Through Gola-Emma Cownie

The weather forecast is for cool weather, so I will be packing some light jumpers. I have found, however, that forecasts are pretty unreliable for Donegal so it could be very pleasant. I am looking forward to the sweet breezes!

 

 

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The Walled City

The Walled City (of Derry)

What’s in a name? It’s complicated

The name of the city I am living in right now is contentious.

It’s official name is Londonderry but no one here seems to call it that, not even the council. Most people in the city itself, Protestants as well as Catholics, call it Derry. This suggests it is more of a contentious issue outside the city that in it. In 1984 the council changed its name council changed its name from Londonderry City Council to Derry City Council. 

Generally, nationalists/Republicans/Catholics/the council and locals favour using the name Derry, whereas, wider afield, unionists/Loyalists/Protestants use Londonderry. Derry is also in the County of Derry or, as it is known offically, and mainly by Protestants, Co. Londonderry.

A suggested compromise dual naming of “Derry/Londonderry” (read “Derry stroke Londonderry”) has given rise to the jokey nickname “Stroke City”, as popularised by the local  radio and television broadcaster, Gerry Anderson. When the city was made UK City of Culture for 2013 and the organising committee’s official logo read “Derry~Londonderry”.  Another attempt to circumvent controversy is to call it “L’derry” or “L-Derry.

Walled City Sign Derry
Walled City Sign

 

You will also see the city refered to as “The Walled City” or “The Maiden City”.

 

Walled City
From the visitderry.com website

 

This last name alludes to the city’s having resisted capture in the siege of 1689.  The walls were never breached.

The closer you get to the city the more likely roadsigns for Londonderry will be “altered”.  There have been requests by a local politician to have signs which have include both Derry and Londonderry, but they have so far gone unheeded.

An exmaple of a graffitied sign post (Strabane)
An exmaple of a graffitied sign post (This one is near Strabane)

 

The opening credits from Channel 4’s Comedy popular show Derry Girls, which is set in Derry in the 1990s before the Peace Process and the Good Friday Agreement, starts with a “Welcome to Londonderry” sign being graffitied as an army patrol passes by. The city walls also feature at the start of the first episode. You can see it in this Youtube clip here.

The local council, Derry City, however, is at great pains to be inclusive. In a recent film about the city’s History and Heritage they labelled it “Everyone’s City”.

Just as an aside, there are many towns and cities around the world called Derry (10) and Londonderry (9). In New Hamphire, USA, both a Londonderry and Derry next to each other.

So where did the two names come from? You might assume that Derry is just a shortened form of Londonderry but that is not so. The name Derry existed long before that of Londonderry (and for much longer).  The name of the settlement on the banks of the River Foyle, was originally called Doire from Daire Calgaich (oakwood or oak grove of Calgach) where a christian monastery was founded  by St Columba in the 6th century.

This actually is one of the longest continuously inhabited places in Ireland.

This oak grove was located on a small hill which was formerly an island in the River Foyle. The river which flowed past the western side of that island gradually dried out leaving a marshy, boggy area. In time this area became known as the Bogside (for more on the Bogside see here).

Early map showing the River Foyle flowing around the island of Derry and creating the Bog to the west of the walled city.
Early map showing the River Foyle flowing around the island of Derry and creating the Bog to the west of the walled city (from the Museum of Free Derry website.)

 

By the 11th century it was known as Daire Coluimb Chille (oakwood of Columba). In late Medieval times the name had been shortened to just Doire, and was later anglicised to Derry. (You can read about Derry’s  Medieval History here). In 1604, the fortified settlement of “Derrie”, had recently been taken over by the English,  was granted its first royal charter as a city and county corporate by James I of England.

So that seems pretty straight forward.

Well, no.

At the start of the 17th century this settlement was partly destroyed by the Irish and then rebuilt by English and Scottish settlers as part of the James’s Protestant plantation (or conquest) of Ulster.

This was organised by The Irish Society, a consortium of the livery companies of the City of London. They built massive stone and earthen fortifications around their new city. It was the last walled city built in Ireland and the only city on the island whose ancient walls survive  to this day.

In recognition of the London investors, an 1613 charter stated “that the said city or town of Derry, for ever hereafter be and shall be named and called the city of Londonderry”.

Thus, the walled city  of Londonderry was mainly a creation of the Protestant plantation. The name itself Londonderry, in the eyes of some, Catholics mainly,  represents English (and British) Imperialism.

The walls, remarkably, are still owned by The Honourable The Irish Society. They put the walls into formal government guardianship in 1955. This means that the state looks after the walls but doesn’t own them. 

Map of the city walls from https://discovernorthernireland.com/

Map of Derry city walls from https://discovernorthernireland.com/

Derry’s walls are a massively popular tourist attraction. In 2019,  466,000 people took the mile-long walkway around the inner city. The walls are massive and in excellent condition. The greenish grey stone, is called Derry Schist, and it came from local quarries to the South West of the city on the far side of the River Foyle from a place called Prehen.

Map of Derry
Map of Derry and regions from Wikipedia by OpenStreetMap

 

Map of Derry
Map of the Walled City in C17th from https://www.ria.ie/digital-atlas-derrylondonderry

 

The walls are just under a mile in length and they varies in width from between 12 and to 35 feet. I am still learning the names of the gates and streets of the city. When it was first built, there were four gates – Bishop’s Gate, Ferryquay Gate, Shipquay Gate and Butcher Gate. These were later rebuilt and additional gates cut into the walls – Magazine Gate, Castle Gate and New Gate (you can read more about the gates here).  It’s a relatively easy walk to do for a fit and abled bodied person.

The Wall near Magazine Street, photogrpahy by Emma Cownie
The Wall near Magazine Street, photogrpahy by Emma Cownie

 

Painting of houses besides the walls of Derry
Derry Walls –  acrylic painting by Emma Cownie

 

The walkway along the top of the walk is paved and wide, although it does underdulate in places.This is  especially true where gates were later inserted into the walls. The main problem for those with mobility issues would be the steps up to the walls and some sections on the west end have a lot of steps along the top, but the good news is that there are two sections of the walls that have ramped, step-free access, so sections of the wall are accessible, just not all of it. I have seen many families with prams on sections of the walls.

http://www.backpacksandbunkbeds.co.uk/ireland-2/view-historic-derry-city-walls/
Map of the Walled City taken from http://www.backpacksandbunkbeds.co.uk/ireland-2/view-historic-derry-city-walls/
Steps over Bishop Gate: Photogrpahy by Emma Cownie
Steps over Bishop Gate: Photography by Emma Cownie

 

The walled City, photography by Emma Cownie
The walled City (and pigeons), photography by Emma Cownie

It took me over an hour and a half to walk a complete ciruit.It should be borne in mind that I was meandering at a snail’s space, taking photos and enjoying the view.

On day trips to Derry, in the past I have just walked along the section near the Foyleside Shopping Centre and the big Primarks, rather than doing the whole loop.

There are some great views:

View to the north from the city walls, photogrpahy by Emma Cownie
View to the north from the city walls, photography by Emma Cownie

 

Wall near Ferryquay Gate: photogrpahy Emma Cownie

Wall near Ferryquay Gate: photography by Emma Cownie

The Guildhall, Derry
Magazine Gate and the Guildhall, Derry, photography by Emma Cownie

 

Derry is famous for its murals (here’s a pictorial tour of some of them here). So, it is very appropriate that Channel 4 commissioned a mural of the Derry Girls right next to the walls.

Derry Girls Mural, seen from the city walls, photogrpahy by Emma Cownie
Derry Girls Mural, seen from the city walls, photography by Emma Cownie

 

It’s an incredible piece of art. They are a tourist attraction in thei own right. Lots of people pose in front of the mural!

Emma Cownie and the Derry Girls
Me and the Derry Girls Mural last year: photography by James Henry Johnston

 

Shipquay Gate by Emma Cownie
Shipquay Gate acrylic painting by Emma Cownie

Find out more about the History of Derry and its walls:

A short tourist information leaflet for Derry city walls (click on the text)

See a digital Map of Derry-Londonderry c.1831 here

Visit Derry Tourism website – including 1 and 2 day vistor passes to 11 attractions here 

How the Derry Walls came about

You can do a virtual tours of the walls here:-

https://discovernorthernireland.com/things-to-do/17th-century-city-walls-p685431

Pocket History of Londonderry

 

Foot Note – Style guides for referring to Derry/Londonderry (taken from wikipedia)

Australian Broadcasting Corporation: Londonderry, Derry: In news stories, first reference for city and county: Londonderry. Second and subsequent, if you like: Derry.

BBC News “The city and county are Londonderry. The city should be given the full name at first reference, but Derry can be used later.” Account may be taken for the context.

The Economist Derry/Londonderry (use in this full dual form at least on first mention; afterwards, plain Derry will do) Londonderry (Derry also permissible).

The Guardian and The Observer: Londonderry: use Derry and County Derry.

The Times Londonderry, but Derry City Council;  and Derry when in direct quotes or in a specifically republican context (this latter rarely)

Ulster University The style guide, updated in 2015, states: Derry~Londonderry is the official name of the city and is the preferred form of use for the University in all written materials. Where it is not practical to use the Derry~Londonderry form, e.g. on social media posts or in media interviews, a limited number of variations may be used. “County Londonderry” is used in giving the address of the campuses in Coleraine and in Derry city. The university’s 2012–2015 guide specified “Derry~Londonderry” for both city and county, except “Londonderry” for each in the addresses of its campuses. The 2010–2012 guide cited the BBC guidelines. The nicknames “Maiden City” and “Stroke City” were specifically prohibited.

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Illuminate Festival, Derry

Illuminate Festival Derry

We have now moved to our permanent home in Derry. We will return to Donegal when it is warmer.

The winter weather wasn’t the problem as such, as I enjoyed the storms and changeable skies. It was living in a draughty cottage without central heating, just storage heaters and a wood burning stove.  We were living on biscuits to keep us warm! The cats and dog just LOVE the radiators in our house in Derry. So do we.

We also love exploring the Historical City of Derry.

The ‘Illuminate’ festival is running over two weekends in Derry, 17th – 20th and 24th – 27th February, from 6pm – 9pm. We visited it on Thursday night. It was very cold (double socks and thermals weather) but mostly dry. This was important was all the sites we visited were out of doors.

We followed a “magical illuminated trail” which told the story of the city. At each of the locations were live projection shows, cast upon the wall and facades of the ancient buildings. They were accompanied by soundtracks, music, singing and narration. They were very affecting at times.  It might have helped if we had taken the map below with us because we started at the Guildhall, which I think is towards the end of the series of six sites. It didn’t matter too much, as we looped around and visited it a second time. We also missed a couple of sites and will have to go back to see them.

Map of Live Projection Shows
Map of Live Projection Shows

 

The route along the 400-year old city walls is about 1.5km long but can be walked at a leisurely pace, and there is plenty of time between each light show.  These were a mix of audio-visual, digital media and outdoor projections. On Thursday night there were lots of families with small children  with prams (although many toddlers ended up  riding piggy-back style on dads’ shoulders)  and dogs on leads.

Illuminate Derry 2022
Illuminate Derry 2022 – outside the walls, the monastic legend Colmcille and his followers

 

Illuminate Derry 2022 - on the walls of the city
Illuminate Derry 2022 – on top of the wall looking out towards St Eugune’s Cathedral

 

Illuminate Derry 2022
Illuminate Derry 2022 – St Columb’s Cathedral

 

Here’s a flavour of one of the Projection shows – in two parts.  Seamas filmed it and wouldlike me to explain the wobbly camera work at the beginning is because Biddy our dog was pulling on the lead. The barking along to Amazing Grace in the second clip, also thanks to Biddy! I had to take her on a quick walk at this point.

Illuminate Derry 2022
Illuminate Derry 2022 – History of the Civil Rights movement and the pathway to peace

 

Illuminate Derry 2022
Illuminate Derry 2022 – The Guildhall

 

Illuminate stilted people
Illuminated stilted people

There are also a numbers of intimiate music gigs (read more here) and street performers. I never thought I would have been so pleased to see fire jugglers as on a cold February night in Derry!

All in all, it was a brillant introduction to Derry, its History, people and its creativity. We thoroughly enjoyed the experience and even better, its running next weekend too so we can do it all over again. Oh, and I forgot to mention. The Live Projection shows and The Sound and Light Trail are free too.

Find Out More

https://www.visitderry.com/illuminate